Mock Orange - Philadelphus lewisii

mock orange botany with brit

 Mock Orange is a rebel, refusing to be pigeonholed by our taxonomic keys. Don't nail me down, man. Are the white blossoms composed of 4 petals or 5? Are the leaves smooth edged or toothed? Mock orange refuses to conform and exhibits great variability throughout its range. This plant is extra responsive to local conditions, and it manages to grow in a variety of habitats in the Western US: by streams, in moist open woodlands, on dry rocky hillsides, and in pine forests.

The large white blossoms occur in clusters of 3-15 at the ends of branches, and their appearance and smell give the plant its name because of their resemblance to citrus flowers. The plant is multistemmed and grows in a vase-like fountain shape. My favorite way of identifying this plant is by looking at the leaves - they have 3 prominent veins emanating from the base of the leaf. The flowers and leaves contain saponins, and a soapy lather can be made of the bruised leaves and flowers.

In addition to its use in washing, indigenous peoples had many other uses for this plant. The Skagit made arrow shafts from its wood, and the Lummi use it for netting shuttles and knitting needles. The Cowlitz and Lummi also used it for making combs. After looking up pictures of beautiful handcrafted combs and imagining the skill necessary to craft something that detailed, I have a new appreciation for the dollar store. 

Mock Orange is particularly appreciated by quail and squirrels who eat its seeds, and the flowers provide nectar for butterflies, bees, and nocturnal moths. Deer and elk browse its branches, and it's a caterpillar host plant.

Philadelphus lewisii was introduced to western science by Meriwether Lewis who collected the plant on his 1805 expedition. A botanist named Frederick Pursh was commissioned to analyze the expedition's plant specimens, and he named this species Lewis' Mock Orange. Would that he were an English Major who cared one wit about alliteration. It could have been Meriwether's Mock Orange, but it was not to be.